by MarkLives (@marklives) How are South African creative agencies faring in ensuring gender equity in the workplace? Are women enjoying the same opportunities and pay as their male colleagues — or are they still mired in gender bias, sexism and harassment? Without any real hard data available, we check in with key female executives for their assessment of the state of adland.

Khanyi Mpumlwana

FCB Joburg creative director, Khanyi Mpumlwana (@kahnyee_) is a copywriter but she’s first Black. Woman. Creative.

I hate the word diversity. It sounds like putting a few different people in a room without any thought of active integration. Inclusion, however, is more deliberate. If we can start having conversations about inclusion, we’ll be in a much better place. There is a myriad of studies that make the business case for inclusive workplaces, which allow for better communication to consumer groups from different cultures, races and religious backgrounds.

Better sales. Pragmatic solutions. Better innovation and stronger creativity — which, in turn, attracts new employees and retains the ones we already have. It’s not that agencies aren’t aware of it. But the industry has an inclusion problem.

  • 57 725 600 people in South Africa
  • 46 682 900 of them are black
  • 23 896 700 of those black people are women
  • Around 15 of those black women are noted creative leaders in advertising
  • All of them are straight and able-bodied

No time for a thesis but here’s to celebrating the most-underrepresented voices in the South African ad industry: black women.

The creative black women

A Harvard Business Review conducted a study that suggests that men are seen as more creative. The belief is that creativity takes autonomy, independence, and thinking that diverges from the status quo. These are perceived to be “masculine” traits.

Client nton-nton wants a tv ad as hilarious as the last one that touches on popular culture and sells the facelift of one of his bestselling cars. Target? Black middle class 25–35. Who’s the first person you want to brief? Is it a woman?

The disparity of opportunity in advertising is driven by implicit bias. Asking for a friend — are you making her do the hair food campaign because she’s good at what she does, or is it that you’re convinced she’s the only one who’ll know the difference between shea butter and Moroccan oil?

Harvard’s Project Implicit, launched 2011, teaches us that implicit bias is the difference between being unwilling and being unable. For example, “You may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science.” Advertising’s implicit bias is the inability (not the unwillingness) to associate women with creativity and the fast-paced, demanding nature of the industry.

The black women who know that equality to some means oppression to others

Our industry is somewhat allergic to anything that feels like compliance. Often, the argument is “we pay talent, not quotas.” The perception that black people, specifically women, are brought into the industry by law and not by innovative thought is evident. Leaders, shareholders and board members need to be deliberate about their approach to equal pay, otherwise it won’t change. According to the World Economic Forum, South Africa is 19th on overall gender equality, but 117th out of 149 countries on equal pay. While companies with over 50 employees are required to report on their policies and income differentials, those companies still find loopholes. There has been an improvement, however, since the introduction of the MAC Charter but there’s a long way to go.

The black women with things left unsaid

Let’s talk about #MattBlack [the hashtag used by women to discuss alleged experiences of abuse by an industry strategist — ed] and the many men who continue to abuse women across the industry — the men who don’t need to see your portfolio in an interview but, rather, what you can do for them. The industry parties in Durban with half-naked women serving you shots. We say nothing because we don’t want to shake up the tradition of the boys’ club. We don’t want to prove them right when they say we’re ruining the fun. We, too, want to chuckle at Bowls Club over Eddie’s chicken. Most times, we’ll laugh with you even when you’re doing it at the expense of an anecdotal woman we don’t know, who probably had one too many tequilas because she felt saying “no” would make her seem weak. It’s uncomfortable. And we all know how to smile through it.

Sexual harassment and comedic microaggressions are commonplace in our industry. When a few brave women took to Twitter about #MattBlack, I thought, “Yes, finally.” But the conversation stayed with those few good women. It was particularly interesting that no black women talked about their experiences: How they’ve been sexualised in the workplace or at a certain restaurant in Bryanston. How, even when they’ve just made a point, their male CCO will make the point louder (cue a reverberation of “Wow, that’s ingenious”, “Mmmyes”, “Ah”). More importantly, we’re not talking about how none of the black women will say these things, because they’re not palatable. Because when they say them, they’re angry.

The black women who talk in echo chambers

Finally, and this has to be said, it’s highly problematic that, whenever this industry wants to have these conversations about diversity, the only people invited to have the conversation are those who are disadvantaged. Where are the white industry leaders talking about transformation without trying to silence the marginalised? Where are the men writing about gender diversity without mansplaining? How many of our older industry leaders are actively working to nurture younger people to create more opportunities?

Opportunity isn’t pie. Ayipheli. Giving of ourselves to help someone else grow won’t destabilise us.

Cue multiple hashtags.

So, here’s to the black women who wake up every day, drag themselves into the studio and tell funny, nuanced, insightful and breathtaking stories. May we be them. May we fill up the awards stage. Hair did. Sneakers laced and ads banging. May we step up while the industry catches up. May we be more than 15.

See also


MarkLives logoLaunched in 2016, “The Big Q” is a regular column on MarkLives in which we ask key advertising and marketing industry execs for their thoughts on relevant issues facing the industry. If you’d like to be part of our pool of panellists, please contact editor Herman Manson via email (2mark at marklives dot com) or Twitter (@marklives). Suggestions for questions are also welcomed.

Sign up now for the MarkLives newsletter, including headlines, emailed every Monday, Wednesday and Friday!

Online CPD Courses Psychology Online CPD Courses Marketing analytics software Marketing analytics software for small business Business management software Business accounting software Gearbox repair company Makeup artist